Cheryl Kahla
Deputy Online News Editor
4 minute read
15 Sep 2021
3:49 pm

Covid-19 variants in SA: Your questions answered

Cheryl Kahla

Viruses constantly change and adapt through mutation. Here's what you need to know.

Photo: iStock

One of the main buzzwords at the moment is undoubtedly “Covid-19 variants”, however, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the different mutations and the impact they may have on society.

There are currently four variants of concern and five variants of interest, and yes, there will be more. In fact, researchers say new Covid-19 variants are detected each week.

But – and this is important – there is no reason to be concerned by the mutations as researchers continue to closely monitor new strains, and continue to test whether vaccines are still effective.

Covid-19 variants: FAQ

Why do viruses mutate?

Viruses – especially ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses – constantly change and adapt through mutation. When a virus’ gene has one or more mutations, it’s called a variant of the original virus.

Dr Robert Bollinger, the Raj and Kamla Gupta Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Medicine, explains:

“All RNA viruses mutate over time, some more than others”.

“For example, flu viruses change often, which is why doctors recommend that you get a new flu vaccine every year,” he says.

Difference between a variant and strain?

A variant is a subtype of a microorganism that is genetically distinct from the main strain, but not sufficiently different to be termed a distinct strain.

A variant is referred to as a strain when it shows distinct physical properties. A specific variant may also undergo additional mutations.

Alpha currently has 17 genetic changes, with each change is referred to as a new strain. Lara Herrero, lead researcher in virology at Griffith University, says:

“Put simply, a strain is a variant that is built differently, and so behaves differently, to its parent virus. These behavioural differences can be subtle or obvious.”

Are there different types of variants?

Yes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) divides variants into two different categories:

  • Variants of Interest (VOI)
  • Variants of concern (VOC)

What is a Variant of Interest?

According to the WHO, a VOI is a variant “which may become of concern”, but hasn’t reached that point yet. VOI may cause an outbreak in one region without spreading to other parts of the global population.

VOI also contain specific genetic markers which are predicted to affect transmission, diagnostics, therapeutics, or immune escape.

There are currently five VOI monitored by the WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

WHO labelPango lineage Classified as VOI Region
Eta B.1.52517 March 2021Multiple countries
IotaB.1.52624 March 2021The United States
KappaB.1.617.14 April 2021India
LambdaC.3714 June 2021Peru
MuB.1.62130 August 2021Colombia

ALSO READ: Vaccines effective against SARS-COV-2 ‘MU’ Variant

What is a Variant of Concern?

A VOC is more serious than a VOI as it has already caused severe illness. It may also spread faster. It may be more difficult to prevent and may be resistant to existing vaccines as well.

There are currently four dominant variants of concern in the global population:

WHO labelPango lineageClassified as VOCRegion
Alpha B.1.1.718 December 2020United Kingdom
Beta B.1.35118 December 2020South Africa
Gamma P.111 January 2021Brazil and Japan
Delta B.1.617.2VOI: 4 April 2021
VOC: 11 May 2021
India

Then there are also variants classified as ‘Alerts for Further Monitoring’, meaning it’s not of interest or concern yet, but will be monitored and re-classified, if necessary.

Alerts for Further Monitoring

  • B.1.427 and B.1.429, first detected in the United States.this mutation was reclassified from a VOI (5 March 2021), to an Alert on 6 July 2021.
  • R.1, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 7 April 2021
  • B.1.466.2, first detected in Indonesia and classified as an Alert on 6 July 2021
  • B.1.1.318, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 2 June 2021
  • B.1.1.519, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 2 June 2021
  • C.36.3, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 16 June 2021
  • B.1.214.2, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 30 June 2021
  • B.1.1.523, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 14 July 2021
  • B.1.619, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 14 July 2021
  • B.1.620, detected in multiple countries and classified as an Alert on 14 July 2021
  • C.1.2, first detected in South Africa and classified as an Alert on 1 September 2021

ALSO READ: New Covid-19 variant in SA mutates 1.7 times faster

Do Covid-19 vaccines work on new variants?

FDA-approved and/or authorised vaccines do work on the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants.

Some breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people are expected but remain rare. All vaccines are particularly effective against severe illness, hospitalisation and death.

Preliminary evidence suggests fully vaccinated people who do become infected with the Delta variant, however, can spread the virus to others, according to the CDC.

Two-dose vaccines (such as Pfizer) have been shown to be more effective – especially against the Delta variant – than single-dose vaccines (Johnson and Johnson).

NOW READ: C.1.2 variant: Vaccines needed ‘more than ever’